Tag Archives: feedback

Special Events — The heart of storytelling

I love verbs and I’m suspicious of nouns.  So it’s not surprising that what really attracts me to any kind of a story is what happens. And what keeps me turning the pages or glued to the screen is anticipation of what happens next.

Sure, I’ll come back to a book or a TV show or a movie because the character or actor interests me.  But, in most cases, I’m interested enough to give them another try because they have paid off in memorable events.  In other words, I trust them because of their actions.  So story building, essentially, depends on generating good events.  Without a doubt, they need to connect in some logical fashion and it would be nice if the characters involved are sympathetic, but if nothing interesting happens, forget about it.

So where to events come from?  What makes a good event?  How many events do you need?  What makes a good collection of events?

In fiction, events come from everywhere — experiences, dreams, imagination.  They may emerge unexpectedly from seat-of-the-pants writing or they may be collected from many sources into lists.  The lists may be random or they may be aggregated around a core idea or feeling.  The core idea of “Peter’s Shell” was turning “The Cask of Amontillado” (imprisonment) up-side down (freedom).  The core feeling of “Waverley” was loneliness.

The first event of “The Cask of Amontillado” is the protagonist tricking Fortunato into coming with him.  Note that the protagonist does something.

Whichever way events are generated, many of them will be weak or useless.  I take a list, either derived from my pages of text or created as a list, and strike out anything that doesn’t interest me.  (The ones that interest me might not interest others, but I have little hope that they will interest others if they don’t engage me.)  Among those that are struck out will be some events that are needed for the story.  Maybe.  It is amazing how many times things that seem to be needed really aren’t.  Writing the story without these events usually works since readers have the ability to fill in what they need.  Some of these events may simply convey some needed facts.  The facts can often find their ways into the story by other means.  In any case, I put question marks next to these events as reminders.

The verbs — good, strong, active verbs — are at the heart of why these events interest me.  (“Trick” is a great verb.)  Can any of these events be made more interesting?  Often, yes.  I go through the list and try and push things to the limit.  In one story, a scene where a character chastised another became one where she demanded he sign a separation agreement.  Finding ways to push to the limits is not hard.  Accepting what comes out is.  It usually “messes up the story,” requiring a lot of rewriting.  It always makes things harder on the characters.  When I am being diligent, I will write the scene in the full-on way before I decide to reject it or go with it, no matter what he consequences.  In most cases, it makes for a better story.

Besides going to the limit, there are other things that can make an event more interesting.  The protagonist in “The Cask of Amontillado” uses reverse psychology at every turn.  His ironic attitude enlivens every event.  Images (such as the tinkling bells of Fortunato’s motley) can also make a scene irresistible.

So now you have a list of events with great verbs that go to the extreme, have attitude and are filled with memorable images.  They need to go into the right order, an order that will make sense, reduce confusion and build.  You may find yourself with too many or two few events, depending on what you are trying to create.  (A good rule of thumb is one event, on average, every three to four pages.  One event may occur in more than one location, especially in a screenplay.  A short story may have fewer event because there may be more narrative set up.  Flash fiction will probably have extremely compressed events, with a high average for the wordcount.)

The best circumstance is too many events.  Looking for further cuts is usually a good idea.  Not much needs to be done in a case where bigger is not a problem (e.g., turning a short story into a novella).  When length is pretty much fixed, as with a screenplay, working backward is one good technique to identify unnecessary events.  The toughest part of having too many events is letting go of those you love but don’t need to tell the story.

I’m more likely to have too few events.   Working backward, asking questions about the characters and getting other folks to read what I have can help me come up with more.  If I’m lucky, the list itself will suggest holes to fill.  If all else fails, simply working on the rewrite, telling the story from start to finish, will get my imagination going.  Each new event, of course, needs to be challenged.  It won’t help to fill gaps or pad the text with dull and mediocre scenes.

There are times when the idea or feeling for the story is too slight.  In these cases, it is best to put the work aside.  Sometime in the future, you may discover that the events really have a different focus, one that is stronger.  Or it may be that the events find their ways into other works over time.  But some events, scenes, sequences and draft books should simply be abandoned.

Almost there now.  The final question is what makes a good collection of events?  Having interesting scenes that all belong to the story and flow together is more than a good start.  But there is a danger that the sum may be less than the parts.  It may not add up to a compelling story.  Here’s where the tools of plotting, looking for motivations and architectures of acts and story design can come in handy.  Everyone from Aristotle to Robert McKee have written about construction of obligatory scenes, the climax, inciting incidents, points of ritual death, pinches, etc., etc.  If all this is a mystery to you and you’re interested, I’m happy to add references, but there is lots of help out there.

Events, however, get you most of the way.  They can provide the go/no go for people with not enough time to write.  (And I don’t know any writers who do have enough time to write.)  The characters we love — in fiction, in history and in our lives — are memorable because of events.  Arthur pulls a sword from a stone.  Hannibal crosses the Alps with elephants.  Your child is born.  We reference people by names, associations (works for, is cousin of) and physical descriptions.  But the most powerful reference is he/she is the one who did an interesting act.  This is at the core of storytelling.

My doings:  I had a book proposal turned down and four contest entries have failed to even final.  Oddly, I’m not discouraged.  Within an hour the editor who turned down the book asked if I would be interested in collaborating with another author.  (I would.)  One contest returned the best feedback I’ve gotten on my fiction.  Clear and actionable.  The other had two apoplectic judges’ sheets from non-pros that trashed the work, but the one from the pro said:

“Great job!  Entertaining read, & a fresh, topical (identity theft, child pornography) spin for the plot.  A computer dude for a hero–fresh!” and “Wonderful style, very readable & very fitting with the sub-genre.  Some wonderful turns of phrase.  I felt fully immersed in the story as I was reading.”  She gave a score of 149 out of a possible 150 points and said to “get this puppy out to agents.”

I’ll be doing that later today.

No sheets yet from the other two entries.  We’ll see.

Putting Writing to the Test

When I tutored executives on communications, they wanted to know how to talk people into things.  They were always surprised when I gave them practice in listening.  I mean, what does that have to do with communications, anyway?

Most writers know that, ultimately, it isn’t about just putting words on paper and being read.  It’s also about hearing what the readers have to say.  Did they have tears in their eyes?  Did they laugh?  Did it change their lives?  Did they get it?

There are intrinsic problems with this.  Most of a writer’s acquaintances will never actually read what they write (even if it is very short — too many distractions).  Most readers do not ever communicate with authors.  Most responses are along the lines of I liked/didn’t like it.  Even “I like it” responses may be just polite.

So writers join together in groups to read each others work and provide feedback.  This can be somewhat helpful or it can be a disaster.  Under the best of circumstances, fellow writers can provide a encouragement or a sense that something (not always something specific) has gone wrong.  I’ve gotten beaten up on my beginning to Warriors by an online group and a face-to-face group and I think with two complete rewrites I’ve made improvements.  But most of the criticism was diametrically opposed.  If I were younger and fainter of heart, I might have chucked it all.  As it was, I groused, grumbled, cursed the gods and otherwise spread gloom with more effectiveness than a flu patient on a red-eye flight.

On Innovation Passport, I had four readers with specific recommendations and editors with even more.  It wasn’t always pleasant, but it was a certain way to get rid of flabby prose and anything that was not clear.  I’m looking at a request from the editor to cut 1000 words from the 6800 word “Civil Complaint,” but he also has some suggestions for me to follow up on.  I’m hoping for a better story, and I think that has happened along the way with other short stories.  Sending short fiction to magazines in one of the best ways to put your writing to the test, especially if the overall quality of your writing encourages editors to comment.

What about novels?  How in the world do you get a critical mass (so to speak) of feedback on a work of 50-100 thousand words?  If you can find a reader out there who actually knows the genre (thanks, Janet!), will take the time and can be articulate, you are truly blessed.  For two novels I wrote, the only comments I ever got were from my agent of the time and from one reader (who said “I liked it”).  Luck and someone who makes 10% may not be enough to get the feedback needed to avoid foolish mistakes and to become a better writer, but I’ve stumbled upon another possibility — contests.

Consider if you will the wonderful Writing Contests page of Ms. Stephie Smith.  At a glance, you get a sense of what contests are out there and what they require.  Each of these also has links so that you can get into the details of submissions.  It is an elegant and useful page, and I recommend Ms. Smith for canonization.  I’m sure she’ll get the requisite miracles in no time.

The first important point: you will not get rich from the winnings in these contest.  Almost without exception, the prizes are miniscule.  But all of them will get at least a portion of your novel in front of a judge, and, provided you rise to the top, your work will get read by a real agent and/or editor.  These people have piles of manuscripts on their desks, and the contests provide a way to cut the line and show your stuff, so this is no small thing.  And these are people who can actually help you by taking you under their wings or buying the work.  (The sales records for finalists and winners of these contests are posted in many cases and are impressive.)  But even if they don’t, you’ll get their comments back.  More on the benefits below.

The second important point: most of these contest are for romance novels.  For many people, this is an immediate problem since they don’t write romances.  If this is a concern, allow me to point you toward the Golden Heart Award page of the Romance Writers of America.  The honors here are essentially for best first novels, but lets take a look at the categories and how they’ve changed.  When the Golden Heart was established in 1983, the categories were Contemporary, Historical and Young Adult (with some attention to “series” aspects, essentially the length of works).  But look at the genres that have joined the party since then: Inspirational (’85), Suspense (’89), Paranormal (’92), and Strong Romantic Elements (’04).  This year was the first for Suspense/Adventure.  (Don’t ask me how this differs from Suspense.)  My point here is if you write mainstream, science fiction, horror, fantasy, thriller or novels about people being saved, there’s a place for you in “romance.”  Just make sure you have a love story.  (But you had one anyway, didn’t you?)  None of this should be surprising since most fiction novels — of any sort — sold are sold to women.  The romance houses have, to a large extent, just acknowledged that.  Think of them as the Borg of stories.

But what if you’re a guy — like me?  I looked through the hundreds of winners of the Golden Heart, and I found a dozen ambiguous names (Kit, Robin (2), Tracy, Pat, Kim, Bronwyn, Sandy, Angel, Jackie, Laron and Kris) in 27 years.  There was one clearly male name, Vince Brach, and this intrepid man does not appear to have published a book under his own name.  Does this mean that those with a Y chromosome should walk away?  No.  Just as for many years women who wrote SF and other genres where men predominated wrote under pseudonyms, I suspect that there are a lot of men out there writing romances under the cover of female names.  Mr. Brach became, at least for awhile, Fran Vincent, presumably without any surgery or hormone treatments.  However, for the purposes of the discussion here, this is interesting but unimportant.  Virtually all the contests Saint Stephie lists require that the authors be anonymous.  So if you keep a female audience in mind, there shouldn’t be a problem.

Aside from the direct benefits of good readers for your novel (usually just a piece, admittedly) and making a publishing connection, these contests are wonderfully diverse in their requirements, and this leads to some lessons.  Want to enter the Ohio contest?  You better learn how to write a query letter.  (And your letter will become text for all those agent queries you’ll be writing.)  If the Maine competition is interesting to you, there is only one way to win: write a dynamite synopsis.  (Again, agents and editors will demand this.  Here’s a chance to get the piece done.)  Can you grab a reader in 15 pages (Gotcha)? Or 3 (Hudson Valley)?  Want to put your first kiss up (New England) against what others can do or hook folks into a romantic comedy (New York City)?  There’s a contest out there for you.

One last important point: when they say only unpublished writers are eligible, don’t give up.  Romance writers in my experience are a nice bunch.  There are competitive types, of course, but the culture is more nurturing than that of most cadres of writers.  Yes, most of the competitions for unpublished works are “closed” to published writers, but they provide wiggle room.  For many of these contests, you get your virginity back if you have not published in five years (and sometimes three).  And if you just happen to have a contract in hand for a Romantic Suspense, this usually is not an impediment to entering a Young Adult or a Paranormal.  It ‘s like being an Olympics amateur today instead of in 1960.

If nothing else, all these contests provide deadlines.  Lots of deadlines that tell writers, when no one else is marking up their calendars, that the work has to be done by a specific day.  My own deadline is a shrinking bank account, but perhaps contests deadlines will be incentive for some of you.

Hang on a minute — writing is a waiting game

Perhaps somewhere there is a cogent essay by William James or Mark Twain about waiting, but I’ve never seen it. And this seems strange to me because one part of the writer’s life that seems to be a constant is waiting for responses on what has been written. You hear about actors waiting for the phone to ring and how excruciating that can be for them. But consider this: actors, at least when they’re plying their trade and often when they’re auditioning will get feedback in real time. Whether the feedback is positive or negative is another matter. Writers, who often are very private individuals, might not have the courage to get such instant feedback. But if they want it, they don’t get it.  Writers are always waiting for the phone to ring. It is a part of the job, full time.

You write paragraph after paragraph with only an imaginary audience before you. Finish the job, and you may have some private readers who’ll take pity on you and look through the work. If you have a writer’s group,they may look at the prose and get back to you in less than a geological age. But, in my experience, friends and colleagues don’t rush to read your latest draft. You wait for them, sometimes in vain. (Collaborators are a different matter, which is one reason why I’m enjoying novel writing Susan.)

One kind of waiting is relatively new for me. I simply avoided it in the past. This is taking a manuscript and putting an aside before revisions. That can’t be a problem if you never do it. And for a long time, I didn’t. What would I see next month that I couldn’t see today? A lot, as it turns out. There really is value to letting a manuscript “cool down.” This self-imposed wait is now part of the mix for me.  I’m still trying not to be grumpy about it.

And consider what happens next: You take that finished manuscript, and you send it out to someone who has the authority to buy it. When I first started writing, there is only one way to deal with this. A self-addressed stamped envelope was the link between writing and feedback. Okay, so we’re talking snail mail. How bad could that be? Pretty bad. I don’t recall ever getting feedback from any editor in less than six weeks. I’d say six months was more the norm.

Today of course, there are some publications (although these don’t tend to include most of the prestige, high paying markets) that will except electronic submissions. There is an improvement here, for sure. The last story I had accepted got a response in 23 minutes. To a writer, this is about as immediate as can be imagined. (I did have one story that was read in a workshop with an editor present. After getting the usual mixed review from my peers, the editor gave a positive response and ended his critique with, “and I’d like to buy it.” That may hold the record for quick feedback for me.)

But although the response in the electronic world can be fast, it usually isn’t. As I look back through my notes, I find that typically I don’t hear back from an editor and less than two months. So the electronic world saves me stamps and a little bit of time, but the experience of waiting for feedback hasn’t much changed.

Nonfiction, of course, is different. Often sales are made on proposals. The promise of a check and seeing your work in print will precede the actual writing. The waiting experience is tied mostly to getting reactions from audiences. With my current book, Innovation Passport, there’s a different layer of waiting. I need to get PR and legal approvals. There’s a special agony associated with that, especially, as is true right now, when PR is saying that perhaps they will block the publication of an 82,000 word manuscript. I’m not sure how common this experience is. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.

In any case, fiction involves a similar wait for audience reaction. and I think that the response to fiction is always a mystery. How your story will connect or not connect with readers can’t really be predicted. For my own work, people seem to either like it or hate it. And the same people who really like one story are apt to really dislike another. And vice versa.

Okay. So writers have a lot of opportunity for waiting, waiting, waiting. How do you handle it? The classic answer is to get to work on something else. And I have to say, having a lot of material in the pipeline can be wonderfully distracting. Works in progress, manuscripts “cooling” and the number of pieces in the hands of editors at the same time does help. At the very time that you send out the latest story that you know everyone will love as much as you do, you get a response back about one of your earlier favorites. It hardly matters whether the note from the editor is an acceptance, a rejection or one of those nice letters that tells you that you just missed and they’d love to see more. It’s a reaction, and it really shifts the focus so that a new work can be done.

So, is the secret to overcoming the problem of waiting as simple as this? Not really. it’s just a balm that keeps the itching from driving you crazy. No matter what, I think a writer maintains contact with the works that have gone out into the world.  It’s not much different from being a parent whose thoughts return to the kids every day, even after they’re grown and out of the house. I’m used to this. It’s part of the package. But this last week or so has been one of the toughest for waiting because a number of things hit their due dates almost simultaneously.

By the end of last week, I was supposed to get feedback on a couple of short stories and the four plays. I also had a commitment from PR for an answer on the book, and I only got half an answer, which was tentative. The waiting experience was further exacerbated by purported deadlines in non-writing areas. I was supposed to hear about a job interview and about my admission to some graduate courses. All this was not simultaneous. Deadlines passed in and out like sniper fire. And I wasn’t very good at keeping my head down.

Some of the issues have resolved. Most are still pending, with a few late enough to require my sending out some plaintive e-mail. Waiting, waiting, waiting. For all the groaning about writer’s block, I think this is the worst part of the writer’s life. Ultimately, both waits and blocks are mind games, or rather mind puzzles that it’s up to the professional to solve. It’s humbling to realize, at this late stage of my career, that this is still a problem for me. But it’s good to have articulated it and have a better understanding of what’s in play. One thing’s for sure, I’ll be keeping my eyes open to see how other writers have dealt with the problem of waiting.

Note: Due to popular demand (or dreams thereof), I’ve added a listing of my more recent published/accepted fiction to the About Peter Andrews page.  I’ll put a bit on nonfiction real soon now.